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Israel's coastal rivers continue to be in sad shape. A decade of efforts to revive them have been of little avail. The rivers' woeful state is detailed in an annual report on the quality of river water released this month by the Institute for Oceanographic and Limnological Research in Haifa.

The report focuses on pollution of rivers caused by fertilizer compounds, and concludes that concentrations of such materials in Israel's rivers are high compared to levels in other countries. The pollution rises steadily each year, and there are few signs of improvement in any of the coastal rivers.

In most rivers surveyed in the study, oxygen levels are dangerously low. Such low levels rule out signs of life in the rivers. These low oxygen levels are particularly grave in rivers such as the Kishon and the Soreq.

Pollution from the rivers reaches beaches; bacteria from the rivers poisons seaweed along the coasts. Researchers have found high levels of toxic metals such as mercury and cadmium in river beds; unacceptably high levels of cadmium were found in the Soreq and Na'aman rivers; and high mercury levels were found in the Hadera, Taninim and Lachish rivers.

Though data released by the Environment Ministry are more encouraging, the ministry's findings also indicate that many rivers suffer from pollution, and not a single river in the country can be defined as purified.

Reinforcing the generally worrisome picture, a ministry report in 2001 said the following about the Ayalon River: "Quality of water in the river worsened significantly this year compared to previous ones." The report explained that water in such a river is polluted by wastes that have been inadequately purified. The same report describes the state of the Na'aman River, near Acre: "The quality of water in the river is very low in summer and fall months, and improves in the winter and spring, when water flows from springs located along the river. Low levels of oxygen and high concentrations of organic compounds and fertilizer agents attest to serious pollution from sewage produced by home or industrial sources."

In recent years, pollution has reached dire levels in Israel's rivers despite the activity of a river purification authority operated by the Environment Ministry, the Jewish National Fund and the Water Authority. Efforts undertaken by the river authority include the formulation of a long-term plan to protect river areas, and various measures in waste purification and pollution prevention.

Up to now, it appears that any progress that has been notched has been in planning and administrative areas, rather than practical purification steps. Master plans have been formulated with respect to several rivers, and administrative agencies have been formed for these rivers; and yet actual efforts to purify their water have been limited, and in some cases new sources of pollution have damaged rivers while the planning ensued.

Environment experts are gravely worried about the future of river water, particularly in view of Israel's chronic water shortage. New freshwater sources for the rivers will have to be found, even if water purification efforts succeed and wastes that reach the rivers in the future arrive at controlled, acceptable levels. Only the infusion of such clean water can bring about a genuine revival of the rivers' ecological systems.

In some rivers, such as the Na'aman, ecosystems have dried up almost entirely during the past two years.

Improvements shown by purification efforts in rivers such as the Kishon and Soreq are not to be denied. There have also been some encouraging signs at the Yarkon; a few weeks ago, the Health Ministry went so far as to revoke its recommendation prohibiting boating on the river's western stretch.

Yet these river purification efforts have yet to be implemented as a high-priority national project. Rhetorical declarations about the importance of the issue by ministers and others have not sufficed; nor did the reports about dangerous pollution levels which surfaced after the Yarkon bridge tragedy, and after naval commandos who trained in the Kishon disclosed their health problems.

Officials from the Environment Ministry and the JNF say that investments of NIS 2 billion are needed to complete purification efforts. Without such major investment, there is little chance of reviving the rivers and the open spaces around them. Without such investment, the rivers and their surrounding areas will continue to be the filthy backyards of our towns and cities.